On Sept. 14, Russia will hold one of its biggest military exercises since the Cold War. Tens of thousands of military personnel are expected to participate in the Zapad 17 drill, set to take place over seven days in Belarus, Kaliningrad, and Russia.

In the Suwalki Gap, the 64-mile border between Poland and Lithuania, tensions are high. This is the only border the Baltic states share with the rest of NATO. After Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, some fear that the three countries (Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia) could be next. Taking the Suwalki Gap would cut them off from their European NATO allies.

The United States is sending an increasing number of soldiers to supplement their NATO allies in Central and Eastern Europe in response to potential Russian military expansion.
US army soldiers from the 3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, train with their Polish Army counterparts in Camp Karliki, in Zagan, Poland and will deploy for nine months in support of Atlantic Resolve, the NATO plan to increase their military presence in Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia and across Europe.

The region’s historic ethnic tensions, going back more than 100 years, could also be exploited, as demonstrated in Donbass, South Ossetia, Abkhazia in Georgia, and Transnistria in Moldova. The militarized environment created by the deployment of Russian land troops and the Russian Baltic Fleet in Kaliningrad is a strong deterrent to any attempt NATO might undertake to kick out Russia from the Baltic states and the Suwalki Gap, should Moscow invade the region.

I spent two weeks in the Suwalki Gap to get an early look at NATO’s response to the Russian deployment, which some analysts believe is there to stay.

Polish soldiers stand at attention.
The 3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team, based in Fort Carson, Colorado, deployed 4,000 soldiers and 87 Abrams Tanks. All vehicles and equipment, totaling more than 2,700 pieces, were shipped to Germany, then sent to Poland via rail.
A soldier in the Polish army goes shopping near the base in Orzysz, Poland. Soldiers from this base are assigned to patrols in the Suwalki Gap.
Sunday Catholic Mass. Suwalki, Poland.
1: Piotr Serydzinski, a retired farmer, holds Russia in high regard and did business with the country in the past. He thinks the talk of a Russian invasion is Western propaganda. 2: Jan Pieczulis, a farmer whose family has owned the land for four generations, holds his grandson Patryk, while Patryk’s mother Erelina cooks dinner.
World War II bunker in Gruszki, Poland, 1 km from Belarus border.